In November of 1968 my twenty-second birthday quietly came and went. I packed photos and books and extraneous items I wanted to keep, but not carry, and posted them home. I drew my savings from the bank, now totalling nearly R600-00 to arrange traveller’s cheques, finished my last week’s work on the bridge over the Swakop River and picked up my last wages. Nico took me through to Walvis Bay to get my yellow-fever and smallpox shots from Dr Harries, there.
Saying goodbye to the friends I had made was not easy, but, little did I know it, I would see a lot more of the Burhoven-Jaspers family through the years ahead. The sky was a beautiful blaze of colour as I left Swakopmund by train in the evening. I was off to Windhoek to get my documentation. First, an endorsement from the Department of Immigration to visit anywhere except all the communist countries. Second, my visas for Angola and Portugal from the Portuguese Consul in the City Centre Building: costing me R15-00! Third, the Bantu Commissioner’s Office, corner of Klein Windhoek and Kaiser Streets, for my permit to pass through Ovamboland, which covered the northern part of South-West Africa on the Angolan border.
The labour force on the bridge were Ovambos. I had been befriended by an Angolan Ovambo who taught me some Fanagalo, the lingua franca learned from his stint on the South African mines, and a little Portuguese. It had been the only way to communicate while we worked together checking acceptable tolerances of the prestress-cable heads, as he could speak neither Afrikaans nor English. Limited as these linguistic beginnings were, they were to prove invaluable in years to come.
My route north passed through Okahandja and Otjiwarongo in the rain, where I got a lift with a lady from Otavi. We went twenty yards before she hit another car; lights smashed, fenders bent. In ten minutes, I got lift all the way to Tsumeb with a mechanic who worked on the mines there. I left my bags at the Minen Hotel, intending to book in if I could not find a lift through Ovamboland. At the station, they told me that the next bus through would only leave next Tuesday. Being only Saturday, this was a gloomy thought. In the hotel pub, I was told that there were a few possible lifts going through, if I could find them, but the best would have been Koos Duvenage who would be going right to the border itself at Oshikango. Someone said the man had already left, which was a disappointment, but after lunch there, I found him right outside the hotel. As it was against the law to give a lift in his Government vehicle, he hesitated at first. But, after dropping his sons at their boarding school, we headed out in his Jeep. He was about sixty, a diabetic, who had spent the past month in Windhoek with his sick wife, but now that she was off the danger list, he was returning to duty as the only Customs Officer at the Oshikango post. He warmed to me when I told him that I, too, had been a Customs Officer. I didn’t say for how long!
A short way out of Tsumeb, he showed me Oshikoto Lake. It is nearly perfectly round and not really a lake at all, but a water-filled sinkhole that was formed when the roof of a limestone cavern collapsed. In 1915, when the German forces of the Kaiser were defeated by the invading South African Army, they threw all their weapons and ammunition into the lake before surrendering. This has since been mostly recovered and resides in the Tsumeb Museum, but divers are still finding remnants lying in the depths. The underground caverns are said to be linked to Lake Guinas, a similar but larger lake many kilometres away.
The road was tarred most of the way through Ovamboland. It is flat, sandy, almost stoneless country, with plenty of depressions then filled with rainwater. Palm trees were plentiful. We passed two elephant that were ripping up mopane bushes at the roadside. Being a Government Administration vehicle, we sailed through the Police roadblock at Otshivello without stopping, reaching Koos’ house in the evening, where he kindly offered me a bed.
The next day, he took me to the post where the police, who handled Immigration, stamped my passport to leave the country. The building was pockmarked by bullet-holes from an attack by SWAPO, the Ovambo freedom fighter/terrorist organisation, some months before. Thereafter, we walked to the Angolan side to meet Senhores Santos and Batista who stamped it as arriving. However, as they had to radio for permission for me to hitch-hike onward, and the permission might come through that day, but more likely amanha, they kept my passport. Koos and I strolled back across the border to his house, where I was fed and slept another night.
Dankie, Oom Koos!